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  Classroom Compass Volume 3, Number 2
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How Can Research on the Brain Inform Education?

In recent years educators have explored links between classroom teaching and emerging theories about how people learn. Exciting discoveries in neuroscience and continued developments in cognitive psychology have presented new ways of thinking about the brain-the human neurological structure and the attendant perceptions and emotions that contribute to learning. Explanations of how the brain works have used metaphors that vary from the computer (an information processor, creating, storing, and manipulating data) to a jungle (a somewhat chaotic, layered world of interwoven, interdependent neurological connections).

Scientists caution that the brain is complex and, while research has revealed some significant findings, there is no widespread agreement about their applicability to the general population or to education in particular. Nevertheless, brain research provides rich possibilities for education and reports of studies from this field have become popular topics in some educational journals. Enterprising organizations are translating these findings into professional development workshops and instructional programs to help teachers apply lessons from the research to classroom settings. References to several teaching models based on brain research are found below.

Opportunities for Learning

Most neuroscientists believe that at birth the human brain has all the neurons it will ever have. Some connections, those that control such automatic functions as breathing and heartbeat, are in place at birth, but most of the individual's mental circuitry results from experiences that greet the newborn and continue, probably, throughout his or her life. How and when neural connections are made is a topic of debate. Some researchers believe the circuits are completed by age five or six. Other studies extend the period of development from birth to the later elementary school years. Still others argue that nerve connections can be modified throughout life with new connections forming perhaps even late in life. For educators who subscribe to the first view, programs and activities aimed at preschoolers (e.g., Head Start or Sesame Street) increase in importance. The second perception supports offering complex subjects much earlier in the curriculum than has been traditional. The third encourages efforts for lifelong learning.

The links between learning, the number of neural connections, or the time frame for development of those connections are not clearly understood. In the case of sight, evidence suggests that after a critical development period vision is severely stunted or fails altogether. For musical learning, some researchers have found that the longer someone plays an instrument the more cortex will be dedicated to controlling the finger movements needed to play it. Exposure to music and development of spatial reasoning (skills that can be transferred to mathematical understanding) seem to be connected.

These and other findings encourage educators and parents to expose very young children to a variety of learning experiences-providing blocks and beads to handle and observe, talking to the child, playing peek-a-boo. The NCTM Curriculum and Evaluation Standards encourage teachers of kindergartners to let students work with patterns; sort, count, and classify objects; use numbers in games; and explore geometric shapes and figures. It is not too early to engage such young children in discussions about patterns, beginning data analysis, sequencing, and number sense. The introduction of a second language is best attempted in these early years as well. In fact, some researchers look to the first year of life as the best "window of opportunity" for accelerated learning.

Emotions and the Mind

Educators may find the most useful information in research that focuses less on the physical and biochemical structure of the brain and more on the mind-a complex mix of thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and reasoning. Studies that explore the effects of attitudes and emotions on learning indicate that stress and constant fear, at any age, can circumvent the brain's normal circuits. A person's physical and emotional well-being are closely linked to the ability to think and to learn effectively. Emotionally stressful home or school environments are counterproductive to students' attempts to learn. While schools cannot control all the influences that impinge on a young person's sense of safety and well-being, classrooms and schools that build an atmosphere of trust and intellectual safety will enhance learning. Letting students talk about their feelings can help them build skills in listening to their classmates' comments. Finding ways to vent emotions productively can help students deal with inevitable instances of anger, fear, hurt, and tension in daily life.

Are you left brained?

It is difficult to sort through all the information offered by brain and mind research and make wise choices for the classroom. One popularization of mind-based research, the hemisphericity theory, has attributed certain learning styles and preferences to dominance of the left or the right side of the brain. This dichotomy seems to explain observable differences among learners and designations of "left-brained" and "right-brained" have appeared in our popular culture. The original studies that supported the theory, however, involved severing (either through an accident or by surgery) the band of nerve fibers, the corpus callosum, that connects the two hemispheres. In a normal brain the two sides of the brain operate together, but with the connection severed, the two halves cannot communicate. The popular interpretation of the hemisphere explanation of personal learning styles ignored the complex, interactive reality of the two sides working together. While understanding the brain's hemispheres is undoubtedly relevant to education, children cannot be categorized as exclusively left-brained or right-brained learners.

Multiple Intelligences

Another popular interpretation of research on human learning is based on Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. First published in 1983, Gardner's Frames of Mind presented a vision of seven intelligences (linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal) that humans exhibit in unique and individual variations. An antidote to the narrow definition of intelligence as reflected in standardized test results, Gardner's theories have been embraced and transformed into curricular interpretations across the country. Many teachers instinctively respond to the notion that students learn and excel in a variety of ways, and believe that a classroom that offers an array of learning opportunities increases the likelihood of success for more students. Gardner himself, however, counsels against widespread application of his theory to every learning situation. All concepts do not lend themselves to every variation of Gardner's list and attempts to present every lesson in seven different modes pushes the theory beyond its practical usefulness. These profiles also should not be used as diagnostic indicators of a student's talents. Just as students are not fully right-brained or left-brained, they should not be defined by their predilection for one or more of Gardner's categories. The goal of education is to encourage the development of well-rounded individuals.

Environments for Learning

Recommended educational approaches, then, consist primarily of trying to maintain a relaxed, focused atmosphere that offers options for learning in individually satisfying ways. The old paradigm of students as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge has given way to the constructivist belief that students continuously build understandings based on their prior experiences and new information. The idea of a fixed intelligence has given way to a more flexible perception of gradual intellectual development dependent on external stimulation.

Gerald Edelman, chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at Scripps Research Institute and 1972 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology, offers a view of the brain that could influence the future classroom. Edelman's vision of the brain as a jungle in which systems interact continuously in a chaotic fashion suggests that learners would thrive in an environment that provides many sensory, cultural, and problem layers. These ideas suggest that students have a natural inclination to learn, understand, and grow. Surround students with a variety of instructional opportunities and they will make the connections for learning.

For More Information

Caine, R. N., and G. Caine (1991). Making connections: Teaching and the human brain. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
In addition to addressing several assumptions that teachers hold about education and citing facts and theories about the human brain, the authors discuss twelve principles of brain-based learning and the implications of those principles for educators. They directly challenge the simplification of learning into left- and right-brained modes.

Edelman, G.M. (1992). Bright air, brilliant fire: On the matter of the mind. New York: Basic.
Gerald M. Edelman, a Nobel Prize recipient, uses the metaphor of the jungle to describe the workings of the brain and explicitly rejects the metaphor of the brain as a computer. Using the ideas of evolutionary morphology and selection, he portrays the brain as a multilayered representation full of loops and layers.

Eisner, E. W. (1997). Cognition and representation; A way to pursue the American dream. Phi Delta Kappan 78, 5: 348-353.
An introduction to a special section on cognition and representation, this article sets out some of the ideas that will follow in the articles in the section and emphasizes the role of culture in processing representation and forming minds.

Gardner, H. (1991). The unschooled mind: How children think and how schools should teach. New York: Basic.
Gardner describes natural learners, normal children who develop a vast array of intuitive understandings about their world even before they enter school.

Sylwester, R. (1997, Oct.). How emotions affect learning. Educational Leadership: 60-65.
Emotion plays an important part in learning and schools need to focus on metacognitive activities that allow students to identify and deal with their own emotions and those of others. Emotionally stressful environments can inhibit learning.

Programs Based on Research on Learning and the Brain

Fennema, E., T. Carpenter, and M. Loef Franke (1992). CGI: Cognitively guided instruction. University of Wisconsin-Madison: Wisconsin Center for Education Research. (1025 West Johnson Street, Madison, WI 53706/1-608-263-4200)

Kovalik, S., Olsen, K. D. (1997). Integrated thematic instruction: The model. Kent, WA: Susan Kovalik, & Associates.

McCarthy, B. (1987). The 4Mat system: Teaching to learning styles with right/left mode techniques. Barrington IL: EXCEL.

Marzano, R. (1992). A different kind of classroom: Teaching with dimensions of learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Implications for Teaching

Recent Research Suggests

Teaching Suggestions

The brain performs many functions simultaneously. Learning is enhanced by a rich environment with a variety of stimuli.

Present content through a variety of teaching strategies, such as physical activities, individual learning times, group interactions, artistic variations, and musical interpretations to help orchestrate student experiences.

Learning engages the entire physiology. Physical development, personal comfort, and emotional state affect the ability to learn.

Be aware that children mature at different rates; chronological age may not reflect the student's readiness to learn.

Incorporate facets of health (stress management, nutrition, exercise) into the learning process.

The search for meaning is innate. The mind's natural curiosity can be engaged by complex and meaningful challenges.

Strive to present lessons and activities that arouse the mind's search for meaning.

The brain is designed to perceive and generate patterns.

Present information in context (real life science, thematic instruction) so the learner can identify patterns and connect with previous experiences.

Emotions and cognition cannot be separated. Emotions can be crucial to the storage and recall of information.

Help build a classroom environment that promotes positive attitudes among students and teachers and about their work.

Encourage students to be aware of their feelings and how the emotional climate affects their learning.

Every brain simultaneously perceives and creates parts and wholes.

Try to avoid isolating information from its context. This isolation makes learning more difficult.

Design activities that require full brain interaction and communication.

Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.

Place materials (posters, art, bulletin boards, music) outside the learner's immediate focus to influence learning.

Be aware that the teacher's enthusiasm, modeling, and coaching present important signals about the value of what is being learned.

Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes.

Use "hooks" or other motivational techniques to encourage personal connections.

Encourage "active processing" through reflection and metacognition to help students consciously review their learning.

We have at least two types of memory: spatial, which registers our daily experience, and rote learning, which deals with facts and skills in isolation.

Separating information and skills from prior experience forces the learner to depend on rote memory.

Try to avoid an emphasis on rote learning; it ignores the learner's personal side and probably interferes with subsequent development of understanding.

The brain understands best when facts and skills are embedded in natural spatial memory.

Use techniques that create or mimic real world experiences and use varied senses. Examples include demonstrations, projects, metaphor, and integration of content areas that embed ideas in genuine experience.

Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.

Try to create an atmosphere of "relaxed alertness" that is low in threat and high in challenge.

Each brain is unique. The brain's structure is actually changed by learning.

Use multifaceted teaching strategies to attract individual interests and let students express their auditory, visual, tactile, or emotional preferences.

Source: From "Understanding a Brain-Based Approach to Learning and Teaching" by R. N. Caine and G. Caine, October 1990, Educational Leadership, 48(2), pp. 66-70. Copyright 1990 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). Adapted by Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) with permission of ASCD.
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